Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Chicory gratin

Ever think that some books are just too big? Too heavy to hold, too many recipes - to the extent that the good recipes don't stand out? I initially had that reaction to all those Phaidon books - Silver Spoon, I Know How To Cook, Vefa's Kitchen - and 1080 Recipes, the Spanish book by Simone and Ines Ortega.

I've had a bit of a rethink though. I was having a browse through the other day (looking for octopus recipes) and realised that actually, 1080 Recipes is a very good book indeed. Georgous design (that goes without saying as it's Phaidon) as well as strong, squiggly illustrations from Javier Mariscal, but the recipes are also much, much better than I originally thought.

This makes me happy, as Amazon tells me I bought it back in 2007 (it's now selling for a minimum price of £50 on that site. Wow.)  and I've finally got round to using it. Reading it properly now, there are just so many things that I want to cook. The book is fearless in its inclusion of delightfully retro dishes including lots of ways with aspic (yes, deeply unpopular for years, but now becoming very chic again thanks, in part I think to Bob Bob Ricard), savoury eclairs, such as one stuffed with asparagus and mayonnaise, and infinite uses for bechamel - from jambon croquettes (my preference is for the brown shrimp variety, but that's a small point), to chicory gratin, an excellent section on vegetables with everything given due consideration - eight recipes for the lowly cauliflower and plenty for some of my favourites, including broad beans (broad beans with black pudding. Yes!) and swiss chard. Also, how often do you see ingredients like borage cropping up in your cookery books? It does here -there's a recipe for potatoes cooked with borage, garlic and paprika (you have to scrape the hairs from the stalks first).

Of course, I'm not sure I want to make *everything* - beetroot stuffed with rice is probably not high on my list of must cooks, neither is the cold rice with canned tuna and mayonnaise, but generally it's a book which I am very impressed with. I particularly like the egg and fish sections (the latter not just merely an homage to salt cod). and the over all thoroughness. It is one of the few books which bothers to give the odd pressure cooker instruction where relevent (such as for octopus). I also like the few recipes from Spanish chefs, including our own Jose Pizarro and Sam and Sam Clark (Moro).

Anyway, back to the chicory, which starts with an amazing tip: if you put chicory into a pan with salted water, bring it to the boil, and as soon as the water is boiling, transfer the chicory to another pan of boiling, salted water, it will help prevent bitterness. I wish I'd known this 2 weeks ago when I made a chicory soup which was just over the edge for me in terms of bitterness.

So - allow 2 heads per person. Cook whole, as described above, just simmer until tender (the recipe says 20 minutes - no way! More like 10). Meanwhile, make a bechamel. I do not need to tell you how to do this - I always heat up the milk first and infuse with bay, a clove studded onion, mace, peppercorns. Rub butter over an oven friendly gratin dish. Wrap the chicory heads in ham (I like to spread mustard over the ham first) and arrange in the gratin dish. Smother the whole in the bechamel, sprinkle with cheese (I usually stick to cheddar, the recipe recommends gruyere) and cook under a grill until brown and bubbling.

One of my most favourite things ever - and it could be my imagination, but I do think the chicory was slightly less bitter....

Friday, 8 April 2011

Soda Bread

This will sound sacriligious to some people, but I have never really liked soda bread. I've made it in an emergency when I've realised I am out of the regular or sourdough sort, but usually I avoid it. I never managed to make one which, presumably due to the bicarbonate of soda and lack of strong/sweet flavours to counter it, always tasted bitter, particularly in the crust.

Anyway, a couple of days ago, I decided to try again.  I was out of bread, the kids needed some for breakfast (my step-daughter is refusing to eat porridge at the moment) and it was too late for me to want to start baking bread. Soda bread it was.

A week ago I had talked to a couple of Irish friends about it, and they both said - try treacle soda bread instead. I turned again to Darina Allen's Forgotten Skills of Cooking - a wonderful book, especially for people like me who prefer to do everything from first principles and like the whole Good Life way with food.

I had already tried her brown soda bread, which unfortunately was too bitter for my tastes. The treacle version was perfect. I followed Darina's instructions for making an approximation of sour milk first (add 2 tbsp lemon juice or white wine vinegar to milk, it will start to thicken immediately), then made what is probably the quickest, easiest soda bread ever. The ingredients are minimal - a bonus actually, as most soda bread recipes have egg in, and my son is currently allergic to them (major vomiting and horrible lumpy rash. Not nice and very inconvenient).

Preheat the oven to 230C. Mix 450g plain white flour, 1 tsp salt & 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda together in a bowl. Whisk 2 tbsp treacle into 400ml sour milk/buttermilk*. Add most of this to the flour and mix. The dough should be soft, but not too sticky. If it's a bit dry, gradually add a bit more of the treacle/milk mixture.

 Shape the dough into a round of about 2.5cm deep and cut a deep cross into it. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 200C for around 30 minutes or until nicely browned and hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom.

This bread has been a great success in our family. The sweetness is slight enough that it still works with savoury (I like it with strong cheese), but is enough to offset the bicarb. It also keeps well (still has a good texture after a couple of days and toasts very well). I am going to experiment by using different flours and adding malt extract next time.

*the one thing I would suggest about the method is that the treacle should be mixed into just half of the milk, just in case you don't need to use all the milk - that way all the treacle will be incorporated.